The jungles of Purulia in West Bengal hide a number of archaeological gems. There was, in fact, a time when Purulia was a thriving centre of Jainism in Bengal. The 24th and last Jain Tirthankara, Vardhamana Mahavira, is believed to have spent considerable time here. Today, soaring, overgrown ruins are all that is left of this Jain heritage, and chief among those ruins are the temples of Deulghata.
Purulia is about 315 km west of Kolkata. You know you’re close when you turn south off the Ranchi-Purulia Road and find yourself in the nondescript village of Garh Jaipur. But nothing in these narrow lanes prepares you for the stunning structures that lie ahead.
It’s 5 km from here to the Ajodhya Hills, across the Kasai River; but still, Deulghata does not reveal itself. It takes a padyatra; you have the leave the road and head into the trees on foot to see them. The first temple you’ll see is at the edge of a paddy field. Intricately decorated, looming into the foreground, it is so overgrown and hidden that you could be forgiven for thinking you just discovered it yourself.
Behind it, you will see a similar structure and, partially hidden among the trees, more and more, until it hits you that you are among the ancient brick temples of Deulghata.
Jainism in Purulia
Purulia is in the Chotanagpur plateau, which stretches across parts of present-day South Bihar, Jharkhand and the Purulia and Bankura districts of West Bengal. In olden times, this area was known as Rarh Pradesh.
The Acharang Sutra, a Jain text from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE – the oldest text in the Jain canon –mentions that Mahavira visited Rarh Pradesh, and was treated with hostility by local residents. Another important canonical Jain text, the Bhagavati Sutra, mentions that Mahavira spent a considerable amount of time at Panit Bhumi in Rarh Pradesh, as Purulia was then known.
Around 1078 CE, the region came under the rule of King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva, ruler of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty of Odisha. This was Jainism’s Golden Age. Though a Shaivite himself, King Anantavarman was a great patron of Jainism and built a number of Jain temples around his second capital of Ambikanagar, in Bankura, about 120 km from Deulghata.
His successors continued their patronage and, as a result, a large number of magnificent Jain temples were built between Bankura and Purulia between the 11th and 12th centuries. Though very little research has been done on the Deulghata temples, they are believed to have been built during this period.
The Discovery of Deulghata
Forgotten by the wider world for centuries, the ancient site of Deulghata was rediscovered and first documented in 1864-65 by Colonel E T Dalton, the British commissioner for Chotanagpur, which fell within the then Bengal Presidency. In his article, Notes On A Tour In Maunbhoom In 1864-65, published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1866, Dalton said, “Some four miles south of the town of Jaipore on the right bank of the Cossai river, near the village of Boram, are three very imposing looking brick temples rising amidst heaps of debris of other ruins, roughly cut and uncut stones and bricks… These three temples are all of the same type, and are no doubt correctly ascribed by the people to the ‘Swaraks’ or ‘Jains’.”
Later, when noted archaeologist J D Beglar of the Archaeological Survey of India visited the site, he also mentioned in his Report Of A Tour Through The Bengal Provinces, Volume VIII, 1872-1873 the presence of three major brick temples and ruins of some stone-built temples. He also identified three idols – a four-armed Parvati, a Ganesha and an eight-armed Durga slaying the demon Mahishasur.
Beglar also discovered a rounded stone slab with inscriptions on it, on a low mound. He believed that the mound had been the site of a brick temple dating back to the 9th or 10th century, thus giving the temples of Deulghata a timeline. The idols were of a later date, in keeping with the fact that, following the decline of Jainism in the 12th century, most Jain temples in Purulia were converted into Hindu shrines.
Inside the Temple Complex
Today, only two brick temples remain at Deulghata. The third collapsed in 2002. The first temple on the southern side was mentioned by Dalton as being the largest. He described the inner sanctum as being just about 9 sq ft in area. The chamber is pyramidal in shape, with a triangular entrance and a small interior, given the size of the exterior.
Dalton noted that “the tower rises from a base of 26 feet square” and estimated on that basis that it was originally 60 ft tall. “…but the upper portion of it has fallen, and it is impossible to say how it was finished off,” Dalton said. Beglar does not mention dimensions but said the temple stands on a mound 11 to 12 ft high.
Close to the first temple stand the ruins of one of the stone temples both Dalton and Beglar describe. The side doorposts of this one remain, as well as a portion of the inner sanctum, where the yoni of a Shivalingam still stands.
Further north stands the second brick temple, very similar in look to the first. This one stands on a much wider platform, but does not occupy most of it. As the first temple, the inner chamber is pyramidal in shape, with a triangular entrance. A small flight of stairs takes you to the top of the platform.
Curiously, in front of the temple, on the platform, is a solitary stone pillar and the stumps of other pillars. These are believed to have supported a mahamandapa or main hall. Beglar believed that the mahamandapa was added at a much later stage, using remains from the stone temples that had crumbled nearby.
There are remains of a stone temple further north. On the eastern side a modern temple has been built on the base of an old temple. It houses a huge Shivalingam. Further north-west, near the banks of the Kasai river, is the base of the third temple, covered by undergrowth.
Local historians like Subash Roy believe this was the largest of the three, but this is most likely because the top of the first temple collapsed a long time ago. Beglar says the third temple was plastered, but with ornamentation on the plaster that was profuse and elaborate. He also discovered a lingam and argha inside the sanctum.
The Building Blocks
The temples were made of two kinds of brick – one measuring 18” x 12” x 2.5” and the other 9”x 12” x 2.5”. At close quarters, as Dalton had said, they looked as if they were made by a machine, because of their perfect shape, smooth surface and sharp edges. The designs on the temples’ walls were also executed almost entirely with brick, with stucco work in some portions only.
The designs are mostly abstract. One can identify some geese and a kirtimukha (a mythical fanged monster) in the ornamentation above the entrance of the first temple on the southern side. In the ornamentation of the second temple, there are headless seated figures. Beglar mentions viewing the temple in a plastered and whitewashed condition. Traces of white plaster are still visible on the walls. Similar figures can be seen scattered under a tree or near the small settlements close to modern temples at Deulghata.
The first temple also had a stone gutter running through the wall of its sanctum, terminating in an elaborately carved gargoyle on the outer wall, to carry out the water used in ablutions of the idol. There is no deity in either sanctum today, but Beglar mentioned a four-armed female deity on a lion in this temple. This female figure still exists and is one of the deities kept inside small cells within the temple.
Artifacts found at Deulghata
The prominent surviving artifacts recovered from Deulghata are assumed to be from the 11th century, made of chlorite stone.
1. Eight-armed Durga: This statue was originally found inside one of the temples by Beglar. The deity, about 4 ft tall, has suffered significant damage as a result of the constant application of vermillion, which has worn away most of the face. Still visible are traces of headgear or a crown, and a sword brandished in the top right hand. One earring, carved into the stone, is still intact. The chalchitra is elaborate and also largely intact. Several small figurines can be seen. The deity stands with one foot on a lion and the other on the demon she has just slain.
2. Four-armed goddess: Originally located on the eastern side of the second or central brick temple is a 4-ft-tall deity standing on a lotus, with a small figure of Ganesha to her right and a female figure to her left. Many believe this to be Saraswati. Carved into the stone of the deity are various bejewelled adornments.
3. Ganesha: The 3-ft deity stands on a lotus, with a large mouse beside it.
4. Singha Bahini: Carved from a single stone, this four-armed female figure is seen riding on a lion, with another two female figures at its base. On the top left and right corners are two stone figurines wearing garlands. Weathered and eroded over time, few details of the face or form are clearly visible.
5. Ranachandi: This figure of an eight-armed warrior goddess with trident and sword has been severely eroded over time. Only the two arms with the weapons are prominent. The rest is damaged beyond recognition.
There are other scattered remains of idols and temples across the area. The presence of so many Hindu deities and Shivalingams points to what must have been a large and affluent Shaivite establishment here. Beglar believed they were probably fairly intolerant too; no Jain idols have been ever recovered.
– LHI Travel Guide
Even though Deulghata is not protected by the State Archaeology Department or the Archaeological Survey of India, it attracts tourists every year, especially during the Tusu harvest festival.
There are no eateries or restrooms at Deulghata, so if you intend to visit, plan accordingly.
There are several trains running between Howrah and Purulia Station. You can alight either at Purulia or Barabhum. Purulia Station is close to where the hotels are, in Purulia town. If you’d like a more offbeat experience, alight at Barabhum and stay in Baghmundi or the Ajodhya Hills. There are plenty of places to stay here.
Deulghata is almost equidistant from the Ajodhya Hills and Purulia town, both of which are about 30 km from the temples.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for travel magazines and publications.